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Maybe The iPhone -- Not AT&T -- Is The Problem

You don't have to look far to find an iPhone owner annoyed with AT&T's network. Most eagerly await the day when Apple decides to end its exclusivity agreement with the service provider, so they can flee to a competitor. But an article in yesterday's New York Times suggests that the problem might not be AT&T -- it might be the iPhone's design. And it has quite a bit of data to back that claim up.

It might seem like common knowledge that AT&T's network is inferior to others. Earlier this month I noted that its network was broadly criticized by Consumer Reports, which placed it dead last among service providers. But the loudest complaints come from iPhone owners. While I've heard other AT&T customers who don't have iPhones also complain about AT&T, to be fair, I haven't known any of its non-iPhone customers for years.

So maybe my personal experience is skewed -- could the iPhone be the problem after all? Here's the issue, according to the article:

Roger Entner, senior vice president for telecommunications research at Nielsen, said the iPhone's "air interface," the electronics in the phone that connect it to the cell towers, had shortcomings that "affect both voice and data." He said that in the eyes of the consumer, "the iPhone has the nimbus of infallibility, ergo, it's AT&T's fault." AT&T does not publicly defend itself because it will not criticize Apple under any circumstances, he said. AT&T and Apple both declined to comment on Mr. Entner's assessments.

That's fascinating. If Entner's charge is accurate, then it makes sense that AT&T would keep its mouth shut, as it wouldn't want to offend Apple. But the article also contains some data suggesting that AT&T's network is actually better than Verizon's. Here are a few excerpts. The first involves a study by Global Wireless Solutions:

The results place AT&T's data network not just on top, but well ahead of everyone else. "AT&T's data throughput is 40 to 50 percent higher than the competition, including Verizon," Mr. Carter said. AT&T is a client and Verizon is not, he added.

And another company's findings:

This year, Root Wireless ran 4.7 million tests on smartphones for each of the four major carriers, spread across seven metropolitan areas: Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles/Orange County, New York, Seattle/Tacoma, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington. In every market, AT&T had faster average download speeds and had signal strength of 75 percent or better more frequently than did Verizon. (A Verizon spokesman declined to comment about these test results or those of Global Wireless Solutions.)

The problem with AT&T's iPhone exclusivity is that most iPhone owners have no frame of reference. Few devices have offered the kind of internet capabilities that the iPhone provides. So most people who owned an iPhone couldn't compare it with the internet access from other service providers, like Verizon. That means if AT&T's network really is better, then very few people would have actually experienced its superiority.

If Apple fixes this shortcoming of the iPhone, I hope for AT&T's sake that it doesn't happen at the same time it rolls out the phone to other service providers. Then anyone who upgrades their phone and switches to Verizon will think that it was, in fact, AT&T's fault. In reality, however, service would have improved for AT&T customers as well who got new iPhones. If the problem really is the iPhone, then I kind of feel bad for AT&T. It's been taking a beating, because it can't possibly criticize Apple.